Monday, December 2, 2013

“What’s a good beginner 35mm film SLR?”

As a veteran of the film-shooting days, I have been asked the question in the headline. I usually defer to other opinions as the selection of anything comes down to personal preferences. 
But recently a very nice younger-type person asked me this question and I tossed off the note below. Mostly without thinking too deeply about it. I am absolutely sure the majority of film camera collectors and users would have entirely different choices than the ones I offer. But here we go, this is how I see things.

[NOTE: the person listed some older cameras as examples in their email to me.]

That’s a big question. It comes down to whether you are interested in the shooting of film or the processing and print-making end of film photography. And since virtually no one makes film cameras now, I’ll have to stay with offering you some suggestions on using vintage equipment.
  • I recommend a Nikon FE or FM. FE for auto-exposure shooting, FM for manual everything. These cameras can mount billions of lenses made from 1959 through early auto-focus lenses (OEM and 3rd party, too). (Note that non-AI lenses will meter in stop-down mode.) These cameras are swift to use, compact, reliable and lightweight. Old MD-11 motor drives are available for under $30. The FM is still going for between $50 - $100. The FE is ‘bout the same, slightly higher in price. The FM2, FE2 and newer models are quite expensive as collectibles. If you’re going pro with film (please say you’re not) choose these models. If you want reliable fun, get the original FM/FE models.
  • The Pentax K1000 is a remake of the venerable Pentax Spotmatic with a bayonet lens mount. Not spectacular to use, a bit feature weak when shooting, and kinda dim in the viewfinder. K-mount lenses are NOT as easy to find as you may have heard. But you can find a good, clean K1000 for under $40.

Here’s a shot at some other good film shooters for fun:

A.) Fully-manual exposure cameras with interchangeable lenses:

  • Nikon Nikkormat series FT, FTn, FT2. They use the original “F” lens mount (FT3 was last model and used AI lens mount). Super-strong cameras, shutters are a bit loud.
  • Canon “FT” series cameras*. Durable, millions of Canon breach-lock FD lenses available. Since Canon FD lenses don’t mate well to Canon EOS DSLR without an optical adapter, these lenses can be found for very nice bargains.
  • Olympus OM-1n (not the OM-1, as the silvering of the mirror WILL eventually darken the viewfinder) Very compact with the largest viewfinder you’ll ever see through - it will hook you on first glance. Power film winders are common and inexpensive. You’ll get interchangeable focus screens, too.*
  • Minolta SRT series (large, durable and millions of Minolta MC/MD lenses available)* SRT-102 and 202 are the ones to target.

B. Automatic exposure 35mm cameras with interchangeable lenses

  • Canon EOS auto-focus 35mm film cameras. The whole EOS line was very good, but avoid the 750 or 850 as they do not allow much exposure flexibility. Even the original EOS, the 650, is a fine shooter. A big plus is that any old EOS “EF” lenses will work on new Canon digital equipment (with a 1.6 crop factor). I used to hate these plastic cameras till I used one. Very fast and easy to use. These cameras won’t get in the way of shooting lots and lots of film. A few models even have “eye-control” where the auto-focus watches where you’re looking in the frame (Elan 7). So cool and yet a bit spooky. If you’re looking for the last generation of Film cameras from Canon, get a Rebel K2 or T2. They offer tremendous flexibility with exposure and would be good for a few decades of use.
  • Nikon manual focus auto exposure FA, FG, F3 (the F3 was a pro model but is now a relative bargain)
  • Nikon Auto-focus, auto exposure: N80, N8008, N6006, N65, N75 (the N75 was one of the last Nikon film cameras - does everything very, very well)
  • Olympus manual focus OM-2n (I have four), OM-2S
  • Minolta manual focus XD-11, XGM, X-700
  • Nikon auto-focus N6006, N8008, N60, N80, N90
  • Contax (Yashica) 137, 139, RTS auto-exposure cameras. Great build quality. Forget the Zeiss lenses; the Yashica equivalent mounts are equal in sharpness at a fraction of the cost. Saying that, few lenses are to be found.


  • Pentax universal screw-thread lens cameras (M42). Most require you to do “stop-down” metering. That means looking through a dark camera to adjust lens openings/shutter speeds. Not real fun after the first few times. Although the Pentax Spotmatic and similar are spectacular shooters with their lens quality, changing lenses by unscrewing them is slow and clumsy. You WILL get tired of doing it.
  • Praktica, Ricoh, Petri, Exakta, Exa, Miranda, Vivitar, Konica, Topcon, Kowa. Some good models mixed with the bad, some had great performance but getting a variety of lenses is either expensive or futile.
  • Anything weirdly vintage: Kodak Retinas, Voigtlanders, Zeiss stuff, and Agfa. Beautiful to look at, joys to hold, but if you break ‘em, no help for you. The rigors of shooting can destroy these old birds.
  • Leica equipment. For collectors only. No, don’t argue. Most Leica owners are too afraid to take their photographic investment out shooting for fear of loss or damage. Most of the best “socks and feet photos from my chair shots” ever made were by done Leica owners.
  • Rangefinder type cameras in general. They are silent and smooth to use, but you’ll yearn for a telephoto or wide-angle lens soon after you buy one. Again, Leica – no, no.
  • Minolta Maxxum series cameras. Great shooters, tons of fun and lots to fiddle with. They just haven’t proven to be as responsive or reliable over time as Nikon or certainly Canon EOS cameras. Great lenses, though. Super.
  • Nikon F and F2. Batteries and heft will kill you here. These cameras will last forever but are limited to older Nikon lenses. Still, no one ever went wrong using one.
  • Canon F1. Big and still expensive to buy. Shutter reliability measured in millions of exposures. Stay away unless you’re a serious shooter with a bit more cash to spend. But then, this is one FABULOUS camera.

D.) Interchangeable Lenses

  • Stay with the OEM if you can. They had more pride in optical quality than the off-brand folks. That’s not to say they made some dogs, too.
  • Since many new digital cameras can accept vintage lens adapters, you’ll find that all the really cool stuff is being bought up for mirrorless cameras. Older Nikon and Minolta stuff seems to be overlooked as digital folk prefer the new Sony or Nikon mount lenses
  • Some off-brand lenses were great. Lenses from Vivitar, Tamron, or Sigma offered good quality at lower prices. You’ll find them on auction sites all the time. The Vivitar Series 1 lens group rivaled OEM lenses.
  • Avoid Albinar, Promaster, Quantaray, Asanuma, Soligor, Braun, and, well, there are others too numerous to name. It’s tempting to use them, but quite often either the build or the resolution lacks.

Those are my opinions. Hope any of this helps. Do your research and good luck shooting. Glad to see someone still holding a torch for chemical-based photography.

* You will need a special battery or slight modification to use current non-Mercury batteries. The new batteries will last for years in some manual exposure camers, so the hassle of finding the correct battery isn’t too bad. Or use a hand-held light meter. Makes you look oh, so cool.